Meatpacking workers ‘systemically ignored,’ says doctor as Alberta delays Cargill vaccine clinic


The Alberta government is delaying plans to vaccinate workers at Cargill’s meatpacking plant in High River — a move doctors say is likely to erode the already shaky trust with a workforce devastated by the pandemic.

Cargill’s meat-processing facility in High River, Alta., shown on Jan. 8, 2021. The province is holding off on a vaccination clinic that would have protected workers at the plant, which has seen two large COVID-19 outbreaks, due to a delayed shipment of 64,000 doses of Moderna vaccine. (Justin Pennell/CBC)

The Alberta government is delaying plans to vaccinate workers at Cargill’s meatpacking plant in High River — a move doctors say is likely to erode the already shaky trust with a workforce that’s been devastated by the pandemic.

Last spring, the southern Alberta plant saw three deaths as 950 workers and hundreds of family and community members tested positive for COVID-19; another outbreak this year resulted in dozens of cases.

An on-site clinic to immunize the more than 2,000 workers at the plant was set to begin Thursday, but Alberta Health said those plans are now being pushed back due to a delayed shipment of 64,000 doses of Moderna vaccine originally scheduled to arrive this week.

“Whenever there is a disruption … it does have consequences,” Health Minister Tyler Shandro said on Wednesday, adding that meatpacking workers and the planned vaccine clinic will continue to be a part of Phase 2C of the province’s vaccine rollout in the coming weeks.

Shandro said other vaccines have been allocated, as Moderna was the planned manufacturer for doses that would have gone to the Cargill clinic.

Currently, anyone over the age of 40, regardless of where they work, can book an appointment across the province to receive an AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine, and those with eligible health conditions or who are over 65 can book appointments to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine.

Cargill spokesperson Daniel Sullivan said the company learned about the postponement on Tuesday evening.

“We are disappointed with the news that our vaccine clinic has been postponed but remain ready to help facilitate vaccines for our employees once they are available,” said a statement from the company.

80% of workers signed up to be vaccinated

As of Monday, the most recent update, Alberta had received 1,456,295 vaccine doses from the federal government. By Tuesday, the province had distributed 1,232,925 of those doses.

Sullivan said nearly 80 per cent of employees, or roughly 1,600 people, had signed up to be vaccinated.

Dr. Amy Tan, a family physician who has cared for a number of food-processing plant workers in northeast Calgary, said modelling shows that prioritizing vaccinations for those in crowded work environments such as meat plants has a larger impact on community health than focusing on age.

“An equitable rollout has not been prioritized,” she said. “There’s other vaccines, there’s not just one vaccine. The government needs to be nimble.”

WATCH | Family of Cargill worker who died from COVID-19 speaks out:

The family of a Cargill meat plant worker who died nearly 2 weeks ago is speaking out this weekend. The 51 year old’s death has been linked to an outbreak of COVID-19 connected with the facility in Southern Alberta. With the economy beginning to re-open, they’re now calling on the company to make sure this kind of tragedy doesn’t happen again. Our Alicia Asquith has those details. 3:28

Many of Tan’s patients, like the workers at Cargill, are people of colour and newcomers to Canada.

“Cargill workers have borne the brunt of outbreaks, deaths. It actually laid bare the fact that our essential workers intersect with precarious employment, crowded housing, transit and carpooling,” Tan said.

“They have not had their safety prioritized … and then, overnight, for those vaccines to no longer be there, the trust that is being built by those who are trying to get these vaccines into these workers’ arms will be torn apart again.

“This is a population that has been systemically ignored.”

Cargill is currently facing a criminal investigation, the first known instance in Canada of police investigating a workplace-related COVID-19 death.

The company is also facing a proposed class-action lawsuit on behalf of individuals who had close contact with employees. They allege the company operated without adequate safeguards despite public health warnings.

Neither the lawsuit nor the allegations in the criminal complaint have been tested in court.

CBC’s own investigation last spring found numerous workers who said they continued to work elbow-to-elbow and felt pressured to show up when sick as Cargill tried to keep its meat-processing lines moving. The province had deemed the plant safe to operate at the time, after health and safety investigators conducted an inspection by video call.

  • Inside the slaughterhouse

Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley on Wednesday called the delay announced by the UCP government unacceptable.

“If I were the agriculture minister, I would go out, I would find 2,000 AstraZeneca vaccinations and I would drive those puppies down there myself,” she said. 

Damaged trust

Dr. Annalee Coakley with the Mosaic Refugee Health Clinic in Calgary has been organizing physician volunteers for the Cargill immunization clinic. She said she’s deeply disappointed by the delay.

Some of Coakley’s patients were affected by the Cargill outbreak last year and she said she’s been working to rebuild their trust in the health system. 

“They felt let down by society in general, the health system in particular,” she said.

“I don’t know if, with the delay, with the postponement, I don’t know if we’ll have the same numbers register for the vaccine. I know that one worker today said ‘You lied.’ And, you know, that hurt me to the core.”

Coakley said workers who caught the virus last year could be vulnerable to it again. They also face economic vulnerability if they and family members are forced to quarantine again without pay.

The 30 physician volunteers, nurses and medical graduates who had planned to be on-site to help answer workers questions in their own languages are now left waiting to find out when they’ll be able to help.

“I’m grieving today. And tomorrow I’m going to wake up and start afresh. I think we’ve got to all go to our partners and see if we can find other solutions to this problem,” Coakley said.

“I personally think we need to start targeting our vaccines toward the hot spots. And Cargill is unfortunately a hot spot.”

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